Designing redundant, boring, practical buildings got me over the hump!
by Jerryn J. McCray, AIA
I was the best and worst intern ever. I was skilled, talented, ambitious, arrogant and black. I wasn’t designed to make it. I was often the only one and I was consistently pissing off my bosses. I was completing tasks at a high level but there was no way I would ever be promoted (due to my “attitude”) without credentials.
I WENT TO WORK
I started studying immediately after an audit by NCARB. Apparently, I fulfilled the IDP requirements suspiciously fast and they had to shake me down. This was 2005. I escaped Auburn University in 2002 (3 years flat). Whatever… I studied every day. I studied every night. I studied on weekends. I passed the first two exams with ease.
I HIT A WALL
No one ever told me many of the correct answers would require actual experience. I flunked the first structures exam because I simply didn’t know what the hell I was doing. No amount of studying and grit (arrogance) could make up for the fact that I was 26 years old and knew more about craft beer and rendering software than I did about a building’s structural logic. My job title was “designer”, which equated to a cartoonist for sleek boxes with windows.
Seeking assistance, I joined a study group within the firm. It was really a good ‘ole boys club. I was a little too ethnic to feel comfortable so I stole their secrets (www.areforum.org) and study-buddied with a young designer fresh out of Harvard! Ah-ha! We studied; we shared resources; we both failed. Yes, the GSD cat flunked – this was not a game. This was WAR!
My boss was a jerk and I got tired of sketching all day and flunking exams. I quit my job in search of more experience and the one-on-one mentoring typical of a small firm. I found a VERY small practice in Washington, DC allowing me the unique privilege to commute via train from Baltimore daily. I used this time to review flashcards by Archiflash. I took another exam. PASSED! Another…. PASSED! Another… Oops!
I wasn’t deterred because I was making incremental progress. Though I had failed as many exams as I passed I never obsessed over this reality. As soon as I was eligible to retake an exam I did. I even failed an exam TWICE (Construction Documents and Services). As in life, I used the failures as opportunities to seek new experiences to fill the gaps. Now, I’m amazing at negotiating contracts! In the office, I was seeing and learning new things daily in a more hands-on manner. I had more responsibility. I was feeling good and had no reason to give up.
I eventually got sick of being around architects all-the-damn-time so I took a professional break to work in a metal fabrication shop. I did this for few months and kept studying. I passed a couple of my second attempt sections during this little sabbatical. I rejoined the profession with a firm that designed office parks. This was another professional departure but I knew I would gain much needed experience in site design for my upcoming vignette exams. I typically worked for designer firms and did designer things but, remember, I wasn’t passing exams! This brutal hit to my portfolio’s ego propelled me through the remainder of my exams. Experience with redundant, boring, practical buildings got me over the hump!
My advice to any newly licensed architect: Obtain an NCARB certificate even if you must put the massive fee on a credit card. Oh, The Places You’ll Go…
Check out Jerryn’s work here.
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